The Devil You Don't Know
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The Devil You Don't Know

Anton Rubinstein’s Demon arrives at Bard SummerScape.
By Jennifer Melick 

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Scene design by Paul DePoo for Bard SummerScape’s Demon
Scenic design courtesy Bard SummerScape
Lermontov’s 1830s poem is about a sensitive, cynical fallen angel.
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Painting of composer Anton Rubinstein by Ilya Repin
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Portrait of poet Mikhail Lermontov by Nikolai Pavlovich Ulyanov

DEVILS ARE PERENNIALLY POPULAR on the opera stage, but how many people know Anton Rubinstein’s 1871 opera Demon? This fantastical morality tale, which pits erotic desire against religious faith, was popular at the start in Russia, and there are a few recordings of it, but the last time it was heard in New York was 2003, when the Mariinsky (then Kirov) Opera gave a single, unstaged performance at the Lincoln Center Festival. 

Rubinstein’s best-known opera, Demon has a cult following, so it is with some excitement that Russian-opera enthusiasts look forward to five staged performances this summer as part of the Bard SummerScape Festival’s “Rimsky-Korsakov and His World” program. Leon Botstein will conduct the American Symphony Orchestra and an all-Russian cast in a production by Thaddeus Strassberger. Demon’sthree acts, plus a Prologue and Apotheosis, have a lot to offer—lush orchestration, spectacular lyric baritone and soprano arias and duets and a meaty contralto part. The unfortunate Prince Sinodal, a tenor, doesn’t make it past Act I—he doesn’t even get a duet with Tamara, his fiancée, but sings sweet, lovelorn arias from afar. The action contains a (literal) kiss of death, and as in any proper Russian opera there are choruses galore—choruses of Tatars, heavenly spirits, spirits from hell, maidens, angels. There’s even a gorgeous Act III entr’acte that anchors the act like a chorale in one of Bach’s cantatas. The opera presents challenges: it requires substantial voices for the main roles, and the libretto calls for flying angels and demons, caravans of horses and camels, and lots of scene changes. 

Botstein says Rubinstein’s choice of a popular subject as source material—a famous poem by Mikhail Lermontov—-sparked the opera’s initial success. But even in Russia stagings are not common today. He notes that the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who loved the title role, had to advocate for concert performances in his home country. What does Botstein think is behind Demon’sneglect? “It’s a very simple and sad explanation,” he says. “Anton Rubinstein was the most famous Russian musician in the nineteenth century, apart from Tchaikovsky. So you were speaking of a man with worldwide fame—a legendary figure. He was of Jewish origin, and in the virulent anti-Semitism of Russian political and cultural life in the rise of late-nineteenth-century nationalism, he was essentially erased. And in the post-Wagnerian enthusiasms of Western Europe, he was erased.” 

Lermontov’s poem is about a sensitive, cynical fallen angel (or “superfluous man”), a popular literary type of the era. The Demon is “winging his way over a sinful earth,” dissatisfied and lonely, viewing with disdain the Caucases’ “noblest scenery.” He spies the Georgian princess Tamara, falls in love with her, and havoc ensues. The poem packs a lot of action into its fifty pages. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, based on the famous Pushkin poem. Both operas were composed in the 1870s and feature a pious girl in the grip of a title character who is rootless, sad, tormented, Byronic.

Rubinstein’s Demon was written during the reformist regime of Tsar Alexander II and had successful runs in St. Petersburg and Moscow. A quarter of a century earlier, the Lermontov poem was banned by government censors under Nicholas I as sacrilegious, and for its eroticism. Rubinstein’s opera retains some of that eroticism, in watered-down form. (In the poem: “He kissed her trembling mouth with burning lips, and the impact of that fire thrilled her … kindling temptation and desire.” In the opera, she sings, “Ah!” and drops dead, and the Angel swoops down.) But you can hear Tamara’s sensual side as early as her first entrance, in which she and a chorus of maidens sing about a golden fish who lures girls down to his crystal chambers. Tamara’s line ends in a rapturous swoon—a series of high B-flats and a repeated chromatic descent. Later in the same scene, her instant attraction to the Demon—her ecstatic, dumbstruck response to first hearing his voice and seeing his unearthly body—is audible in her repetition of the Demon’s words to her, set over a simple triadic line: “I budyesh ty tsaritsei mira, podruga vechnaya moya!” (You will be tsaritsa/mistress of the world, my eternal companion). 

The Demon is an earnest, sympathetic devil—or at least one whose cunning is not openly displayed. When he is being most devilish with Tamara, his lyric arcs simply become more chromatic. His Act III tour-de-force is really three lengthy love arias strung together. The Demon’s manic obsession with Tamara, his long screeds, become Lucifer-like. As Tamara frantically pleads with him to leave her alone and renounce evil, the arias turn to duets, although more in opposition than as a united pair. 

Rubinstein’s essentially conservative musical style contrasts with that of his “Mighty Five” contemporaries (Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Mussorgsky) and their pioneering use of Orientalism, pentatonic scales and Russian folk elements. He was not a musical revolutionary. But as a composer, Rubinstein was prolific, writing piano concertos, chamber music, songs and symphonies, in addition to nineteen operas. Here’s hoping Demon’s curse—a curse of benign neglect—will end, spurring deserved reconsideration of this opera. spacer 

Jennifer Melick is managing editor of Symphony magazine. 

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